This year marks the 20th anniversary of Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse. It’s been called “children’s theater for adults” with topical themes, sophisticated humor, and clever songs. This year’s show, Superhuman Happiness, adapts the Greek myths of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to explore the role of change in kids’ lives today. The playhouse and artistic director John Fleming also face some major changes. Community Voices producer David Seitz has their story.
The Greek myths may seem old for millennial kids, but director John Fleming sees the idea of transformation as a major part of their lives today.
“Morphing and changing…That’s not a big deal for young people now,” remarked Fleming. “You know from Harry Potter to maybe the older ones looked at Game of Thrones. You know they grew up with the idea that you can change into an animal. I started looking around at the idea of change. For kids growing up today, it’s a skill they have to learn because their ability to create change is going to be unprecedented. “
Over the course of the play, humans change into a laurel tree, a cow, a cloud. Greta Kremer plays Echo who is cursed to only repeat the words of others and is ultimately turned to stone.
Kremer explained her character. “I think that she’s a very lonely, sad, misunderstood, and very frustrated character because she cannot express herself and nobody really understands what she’s trying to tell them.”
Kremer, like many of the teens in the show, grew up in Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse. The company fosters change and growth in kids because they produce only original theater.
“They have to make it up themselves,” said Fleming. “They can’t say 'Oh, I went on YouTube, and I saw another production, and this is the way they did it.' That doesn’t happen with us because you know it’s never been done before.”
Fleming grew up on Mardi Gras and masks in New Orleans and later trained in mime. For many years, he acted in experimental theater up and down the Mississippi river and then in New York City.
“And I know a lot of people, other playwrights and musicians who have come from New York to work with John on any number of bizarre, strange ideas that he had the idea would make good children’s theater. He was generally pretty right," said Roger Babb, a well-known actor and director in the New York experimental theater scene.
Audiences experience YSKP shows in an outdoor amphitheater. Babb compares the summer event to the origins of Greek Theater.
“It’s like a more ancient feel of community and sacrifice. It’s like eating a meal. So there was already going to be something for the audience to chew on rather than just consume.”
YSKP shows travel to other cultures and time periods. They also address topical issues like the environment or technology. Fleming wants the kids to see that they are part of something bigger than their own role or even a singular play.
“And I usually ask the question what is this show about?" Fleming said. "It’s never been done before, what’s it really about? And I’m always blown away by how…smart they are. They get it, and then they get it at a deeper level, even.”
Fleming believes kids can create entertaining characters that portray some deep ideas at times, as in the musical adaptation of the middle eastern Sufi tale, The Conference of the Birds. He reflected on this particular directing experience. “At one point, I remember thinking to myself on a bad day of rehearsal, I’m doing a musical about death…with kids. You know, what’s wrong with me? But as it turned out, I mean it wasn’t about death, but it was about, you know, eternity.”
Now, Yellow Springs Kids Playhouse faces its own big change. John Fleming is retiring from his role as artistic director. The board of YSKP is passing the torch to Ara Beal, an alumn who went on to become an arts educator.
Beal presented her vision of YSKP’s future. “The project I hope to get going with the high school next year is actually a devised theater piece which means that the students will do some research and bring it to the rehearsal hall and get on their feet and create theater, and my job will be more to guide them than to be the person with the final vision.”
As John Fleming prepares to leave, he finds himself reflecting on the years with YSKP.
“I think it changed me working 20 years in this intensive way with kids is just being able to learn how to meet kids on their own level and being able to use that as the source for what they do on stage, and enjoying them for who they are.”
YSKP presents Superhuman Happiness, July 10-13 and 17-20 at the Antioch Area Amphitheatre in Yellow Springs. More information at yskp.org.